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Clock ticks for Indians in U.S. without papers

Demonstrators in front of Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in San Francisco.  

Sukhpal Dhanoa, a Sikh community activist based in Virginia, got an unexpected call from an acquaintance in Punjab one day. A 22-year-old youth from the caller’s village was in a detention centre in Washington State, caught by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection while crossing over from Canada without proper documents. Mr. Dhanoa engaged an attorney who secured the release of the young man, who has since applied for asylum in America. The incident took place some months before Donald Trump became President in January 2017.

A similar process would be difficult now, as Mr. Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy on unauthorised presence in America focusses on detaining people if they are picked up without documents. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been ramping up its detention capacity. Administration officials believe this will deter anyone trying to enter the country illegally. At least 94 Indians are in detention centres in New Mexico and Oregon, caught by the ICE and accused of illegal presence in America.

Those who seek to pursue their American dream through illegal means could be walking into a tough terrain, warns Akanksha Kalra, a leading immigration attorney based in Philadelphia.

Ms. Kalra grew up in Punjab, speaks fluent Punjabi, and has assisted several detainees over the years. “These are mostly youth in their 20s, from rural areas of Punjab. They must have paid anything between ₹20-₹40 lakh to touts and travelled for five to six months before entering the U.S. It is a dangerous journey, and I have heard some variation of this story from numerous people over the years,” she said.

“The fastest growing undocumented population since 2011 by country of origin is Indian,” said Chirayu Patel, an Indian American immigration activist, who reached America as an 11-year-old in 1994 legally, but lost his legal status along with that of his parents.

A Pew Research Centre study in 2015 estimated that there were five lakh Indians living without authorisation in America. This has been rising steeply in recent decades —there were only 30,000 in 1990, 1,20,000 in 1995, and 2,40,000 in 2000. Indians are coming in large numbers, even as Mexicans, who constitute the largest share of the undocumented population of America, are returning to their home country in considerable numbers given the shrinking opportunities for low skilled labour.

No centralised data

These are estimates and exact numbers are difficult to come by as multiple agencies in America, from county police to ICE, don’t have centralised data on the presence of unauthorised people or their detentions.

“International law requires that if an Indian is detained, the Indian mission should be informed. But that rarely happens,” pointed out an Indian official. But several people familiar with the issue told The Hindu that the estimation of five lakh Indians was not unrealistic.

Only a fraction of these undocumented residents enter America without documents. “Most of them come on a visa and overstay. There is no way to know how many, and who,” an Indian official said.

Some of them seek asylum in America, and their number is dramatically increasing in the last few years. Last year, 7,400 Indians sought asylum in the U.S., a United Nations report released this week said. In 2013, only 513 applied.

The increasing number of Indian citizens living without documents in the U.S. is raising new questions for Indian consulates. When their passports expire, many of them approach the consulates for their renewal. They are Indian citizens and hence eligible for consular services; at the same time they are illegally staying in the U.S. and hence the question is whether the Indian government should facilitate it. Indian officials said the current policy is to renew the passport only if there is a current American process under way to authorise their stay. A new fraud that Indian consulate officials are increasingly encountering is fake American green cards, submitted to claim legal presence in America.

Those seeking asylum in America forsake their Indian citizenship rights, and Indian consulates are not involved in the process at all. Asylum applications by those who arrive on a visa are processed through a different process from those who are apprehended at entry. But the process of determining both can be long winding, and could take several years, Ms. Kalra pointed. “In California, for instance, your next hearing could be three years later. Even after you have lost the asylum application, there could be appeal,” she pointed out. While the asylum petition is pending, most people get work authorisation. All this might be changing, as Mr. Trump’s administration seeks to tighten the screws, she pointed out.

Many who are detained without documents are put on a flight to India, if they have travel documents. Those who have lost their Indian passports get temporary travel documents after their identity is ascertained.

Their numbers are set to swell. The Trump administration’s approach is to speed up judicial and administrative procedures and not allow detained people to walk out in the meantime, as far as possible.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 2:14:46 PM |

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